I’d like to introduce you to Tom Kimmel. Along with releasing several major label albums as an artist himself, Tom has written songs covered by Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstadt and Randy Travis among others. Tom’s insights into the lyric-writing process are well worth a good read. Enjoy!


For some of us, a lyric rushes out into the world before we can think much about it and sometimes it’s a fine lyric, just as it is. Other times, even if we feel a strong personal connection with the lyric, it could be strengthened with a little work.

On the other hand, often a lyric comes in dribs and drabs, and once we have a complete draft we might be so relieved that we declare it finished prematurely.

In both cases, a lyric might benefit from a fresh perspective and a willingness to tinker a little.Songwriting Tips

Ted Kooser, one of my favorite poets, says that even when one of his poems comes out in one piece he still plays with it a bit to see if it might be improved. He hastens to add, however, that no matter how much or how little re-writing the poem requires, he wants it to read as if it flowed from the pen.

We songwriters have a similar goal. We want our songs to slide by easily without calling too much attention to themselves even if the lyric has real content and depth. To that end, there are a couple of references I return to.

When I’m re-writing a lyric I first ask myself if the song has what I call a strong through the door factor. In other words, I want the words to sound good and to sing well so well, in fact, that if someone heard the song through the door they’d enjoy it!

In order to achieve that, I may record a working version of the song-in-progress and listen to it softly or from a distance not analyzing the words, but listening for the sound and flow of the words. Do the words seem to roll off the tongue or do I stumble over certain sounds, words or phrases?

Chances are that if a lyric doesn’t sound good from the other side of the door, it won’t sound good up close either. So, in my book, it’s very important that a lyric sound and feel good. If it doesn’t, I can begin my re-write by asking these questions:

1. Do the syllables I emphasize when singing my lyric coincide with the notes emphasized in my melody? If not, I’ll try to adjust.

2. Do the number or words or syllables I’m placing in my lines and phrases make it easy for me to sing the song? If I’m cramming in too many syllables in a line or phrase, I can experiment with simplifying by making my phrasing less busy.

3. Likewise, I may need to add words or syllables to more closely coincide with notes of melody that I’m emphasizing.

4. Are most of the vowel sounds in my words easy to sing? For example, I’m probably going to avoid placing the words hat or it over a very high note!

Of course, strong lyrical content is extremely important to most songwriters, so the second way I approach a re-write or edit is by examining how the lyric unfolds as the song develops. I may ask myself, “Does my lyric and song unfold in a way that is satisfying, that holds the listener’s attention as well as my own?”

To consider this when I coach songwriters and lead workshops, I suggest that a song is very much like a three act play. Some of the story – be it a literal tale or an emotional or spiritual narrative – is revealed in the first act, which most often is the song’s first verse and chorus. The second act usually the second verse and chorus is a new beginning; more of the story is introduced and then summed up in the second chorus. The remainder of the story is then told in the third act often the bridge and final chorus.

In my own work, if I then see that I reveal too much, too soon in my songI make changes. One technique espoused by a friend of mine is to take the first verse and make it the second verse… and to write a new first verse that is more of a prologue… so that the story has somewhere to go! Likewise if the song is slow to develop, I have the option of trying my second verse as the first verse. Experiment!Songwriting Tips

Bottom line: a song is not a painting. It doesn’t exist all at once. It has a beginning, middle and end, and it needs to flow, rise and fall throughout its lifespan. (In filmmaking they call this advancing the narrative.)

So let’s say I’ve got my song sounding good and I’ve got my story unfolding in a nice way. There’s still one question I ask about my lyric and that is, “Are all the lines in my lyric relevant to my theme?” In other words, does my whole lyric support the point or theme of my song? If I have some filler lines or phrases I’ll probably want to work on the song a bit more.

Finally, I have found that considering the above questions gives me a context for my writing. There are numerous details I can attend to, but if I don’t place the work of re-writing into this larger context, then all my work on the details likely won’t bring about the hoped for result.

In closing, I’ll share a technique I use over and over in the process of finishing or re-writing. If I’ve come to feel that I’ve been trying too hard to complete something that I’m using too much mental muscle because I’ve lost the creative thread then it’s important that I step away from the song, let it rest and come back to it fresh.

The single most helpful way I know to do this is to make a rough recording of the song, singing only the words I’m happy with and humming in places that might need a stronger lyric. It’s important that I don’t force words that don’t sound right or make sufficient sense. Then and this is keyI listen to my rough recording at bedtime. (And by that I mean listen last thing before I turn off the light.)

It’s amazing how often the right words will bubble up from the subconscious the next day… or soon thereafter.

Want a dozen quick fixes for your songs?

Click the image on the right for my free tip sheet.

6 responses to “Some Tips on Editing and Re-writing A Lyric”

  1. Davidson says:

    Tom, that was a really helpful and timely post! I love the “through the door” approach you discussed. In fact, I’m going to try it out right now. Your ideas were presented in a slightly different way than I’ve seen lyric writing talked about before. Very cool. Thank you 🙂

  2. all good points….but, songwriting is an alchemic process, not a science project…and true creativity is intuitive, not analytical….
    so, learning to let your yin energy flow without your yang critical side critiquing it, allows the story to unfold naturally….
    because second-guessing the process, is like forming a committee to write the dang thing (which is why “director’s cuts” in the film biz are always a disaster)….and co-writing doesn’t usually allow for artistry, only craftmanship….
    so, learn to let it all tumble out, and you’ll never have to edit your lyrics….good luck…

  3. Cathy says:

    Tom Kimmel is one of my favorites. I’ve taken several classes with him over the years and he is always in the back of my head and heart when I write. He is one of the best. I wouldn’t say I’m a great writer, but I’m a better writer because of Tom. Thanks for this!

  4. Gary Nobile says:

    Hi Cliff, thank you for bringing Tom into the mix here. I appreciate the perspective of those who have already accomplished at high levels. I always learn something when I read your column, All the best, -G

  5. Great stuff Cliff, Tom. There is inspiration, and then there is craft. Inspiration comes, unbidden, even if uninvited. Craft demands analytical thought. And studious learning of craft can make future inspiration less needful of craft. You learn to exert your craft in the process of documenting your inspiration, performing it, and then putting it in fixed form.

    1. Matching syllable/note emphasis. Ideally, a Melody repeats closely enough in Verse 2 that listeners recognize it as a repeat, and not some new component Movement in the composition. Songwriters and Lyricists sometimes overlook that. They get so focused on the storytelling they forget Prosody, the ‘marriage’ of the Lyric to the Melody. The same Rhyme-Scheme, exactly the same or nearly enough the same syllable/note emphasis to make listeners know Verse 2 is a repeat of the Verse Movement they heard in Verse 1. Listeners ‘learn’ the Song, and the ear expects repetition to supply structure.

    2. Sometimes I get so focused on the Lyric I forget it has to be sung. Too many words ‘clutter up the mouth’ of the singer. Writers often use connector words, ‘But’ and ‘And’, for example, to connect the ideas of one line to another. But (?) listeners often don’t need those connectors. They get the connection without them. And (?) removing them makes one less word the singer has to get in there. ‘And’ is particularly egregious in the mouth of a singer because they drop the ‘A’ sound, leaving ‘nd’ to slur into the next word. That can confuse listeners. ‘And I’ comes out as ‘nd I’, sounding like ‘die’. I suggest deleting those words and seeing if the ideas work without them.

    “how the lyric unfolds” “Does my lyric hold the listener’s attention as well as my own?”

    There’s a strategic one. I often find myself drifting off to other thoughts while a Song plays. They may have ‘hooked’ me with the ‘hook factor’ in whatever Introductory Movement sounds they gave me. They may have kept me on the hook with some of the first Verse. They may have kept me hooked into the Chorus. But somewhere I became ‘unhooked’ and was thinking about something else when the Song ended, and I then noticed I hadn’t been listening. Maybe it was me, whatever ‘condition’ I was in that day, real life distractions, fatigue, indifference, a woman. But, maybe I came unhooked because the writer and/or the delivery singer/band weren’t really hooked on their own Song. YOU, as the Songwriter, are the first listener. YOU should be hooked the same way you want me to be hooked the first time I hear your Song. YOU should stay hooked, the same way you want me to be.

    The play in three acts is a good analogy. Act I sets up. It puts the furniture on the stage, plans the lighting, dresses the Characters in costume, exposes the ‘character’ of the Characters. Act II advances the storyline, the narrative. Act III is the denoument, the end. You have to keep me hooked, paying attention all the way to Act III, and give me a satisfactory ending.

    The Chorus sums up what the whole play is about. That summary line that is the gist of the story, the main point, the punchline of the joke, is the title.

    They call it the “Third Verse Curse” when you can’t find a satisfactory ending for the narrative in a Verse 3. Despairing of finding it you can resort to a Bridge, which serves the function of refreshing listener attention and interest. It enables you to deliver a final giving of the Chorus without being ‘too’ repetitious. A Song has to have ‘enough’ repetition to supply structure, enough change to keep it interesting. ‘Enough’ is a judgment call, again, on YOUR part, YOU, the Songwriter. If YOU come unhooked so will I. How much is not enough? How much is too much? How much is enough?

    :,.,,I reveal too much, too soon in my song’ is that ‘enough’ concept. I like the shifting of Verses or writing a “prologue’ Verse “so that the story has somewhere to go!”

    Often the interesting inspiration comes quickly. The storytelling has to be crafted to NOT start in the middle or with the end. Setup is of strategic importance in a satisfying piece of art.

    “Bottom line: a song is not a painting.” Another good analogy. “…filmaking…advancing the narrative.”

    Films are ‘built’ on screenplays, a series of about 60 ‘Major Moments’, each about 1 to 3 minutes long, each ‘unfolding’ the story into the next. If there’s a movie you like study it and see if you can spot these Major Moments beginning and ending and unfolding or advancing the narrative.

    Songs have been called 3-minute movies. Each Verse is or is comprised of Major Moments. The Chorus, the Bridge, Major Moments.

    “Are all the lines in my lyric relevant to my theme?”

    The Grab-A-Rhyme lines, grabbed in the moment, to keep going, to keep the Creative Flow feeding into your creation, often end up in the finished product. Maybe they served as place holders, helping you ‘feel’ the Rhythm and Rhyme and keep ‘advancing the narrative’. But a little self-critique can spot them and find more interesting things that are more relevant to the narrative, more coherent to the theme, better imagery or concepts in the storyline. If you don’t look for them, the Grab-A-Rhyme lines, and their more theme-coherent crafted lines, you won’t find them.

    “If I’ve (YOU, the Songwriter) come to feel (‘feel’, a judgment call) that I’ve been trying too hard to complete something that I’m using too much mental muscle (forcing inspiration into craft) because I’ve lost the creative thread (inspiration) then it’s important that I step away from the song, let it rest and come back to it fresh.”

    “This is key’ I listen to my rough recording at bedtime. (And by that I mean listen last thing before I turn off the light.)”

    It’s amazing how often the right words will bubble up from the subconscious the next day… or soon thereafter”

    Sometimes YOU, the Songwriter, don’t ‘get’ the Singer-Character until it’s had a little time to percolate through your brain. You don’t ‘get’ his story in full. You don’t get his attitude. You’re not sure what his story is and how he is feeling and acting in it. I like that idea of putting it in the brain at bedtime, letting it get, possibly, into your dreams, and having it pop up the next day with increased comprehension of the big picture.

    Great advice here. I have to link it to Songwriter101.com

  6. Rosa says:

    Awesome article. Very educational. I already implemented several writing techniques Mr. kimmel suggested in this article. Thanks Mr. Goldmacher for sharing with us your knowledge and experience. I really appreciate it.
    Sincerely, Rosa

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